TWIN FALLS — At least four Magic Valley counties are joining a nationwide lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, while two others are considering it.
Officials in Cassia, Camas, Gooding and Blaine counties have agreed to file lawsuits against companies that made and distributed painkillers, joining more than 500 other counties across the U.S. The lawsuits allege that the companies’ marketing of opioids as safe and effective for long-term use contributed to a national public health crisis, at a financial and social cost to counties.
Available data suggests that south-central Idaho hasn’t been hit as hard by the opioid epidemic as other parts of the country. But county officials point out that opioid abuse can be difficult to measure quantitatively — and that it could become more prevalent in the future.
By filing lawsuits, some commissioners say they hope to learn more about the local impacts of opioid use, support other counties that have experienced greater damages, and prepare for a possible increase in opioid abuse in the years to come.
“I think counties are probably beginning to wake up to the fact that this is an issue that is being poorly tracked in Idaho but may be moving under the radar, so to speak,” said Blaine County commissioner Larry Schoen.
Schoen said he views the benefits of joining as twofold: “Learning more about opioid use and addiction in our community, and participating in any settlement with the manufacturers.”
The four Magic Valley counties will be represented by law firms based in New York and Wisconsin, at no cost to the counties. If the lawsuit is successful, the law firms will collect a percentage of the recovery.
In a telephone meeting with Jerome County commissioners Monday, attorney Erin Dickinson of the Wisconsin firm Crueger Dickinson described the litigation as a “mass action,” rather than class action, lawsuit, as each county will need to file an individual case. Those cases will be consolidated in a federal court in Ohio.
Jerome commissioners did not make a decision on Monday whether to move forward with a lawsuit. First, they said, they want to do some more research on how the opioid crisis has affected Jerome County.
“I do not have a clue if this is impacting our county,” Commissioner Cathy Roemer said. “It might behoove us to determine that.”
Blaine County, which decided to file a lawsuit on Mar. 20, was the third Magic Valley county to do so, following Camas and Gooding in early March.
Cassia County commissioners agreed to file a lawsuit on Monday, and will sign an engagement letter next week, according to Commissioner Tim Darrington.
Darrington said the lawsuit has helped bring the issue of opioid addiction to the “forefront” of Cassia commissioners’ awareness.
“I think we have more damage to us than what we realized in the different areas,” such as costs to the health care and criminal justice systems, Darrington said. Meanwhile, he added, the pharmaceutical companies “make billions on this.”
While counties do not pay a fee to the law firms representing them, there may be some additional costs involved in researching local opioid use, Schoen and Darrington said.
Twin Falls commissioners have not heard a formal presentation on the lawsuit, but have been in contact with Dan Chadwick, former director of the Idaho Association of Counties, Commissioner Terry Kramer said. Chadwick is serving as a liaison of sorts between Idaho counties and the law firms offering to represent them.
Like Darrington and Schoen, Kramer said he suspected opioid addiction may be more common in his county than the available data would suggest.
“We don’t see tremendous amount of opioids problems here,” Kramer said. “But I think they’re coming.”
Twin Falls commissioners don’t plan to make a decision until the county prosecutor, Grant Loebs, has had a chance to do some research on the litigation, Kramer said.
“Some of the counties have done it independently as commissioners, but we would prefer to do it with the blessing of our prosecuting attorney,” Kramer said.
Lincoln County commissioners have not discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit, Commissioner Rebecca Wood said.
Commissioners from Minidoka County did not immediately return a request for comment.